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  • Learning to Referee

  • What You Need

  • A Typical Game Day

Learning to Referee

Learning to referee rugby football games is largely a trial by fire. There is only a single referee on the field, that referee cannot change a decision once made, and no-one else can help you (although they can complain.) Nevertheless, we are hoping you will join us in this rewarding and nearly thankless endeavor.

To start, you need a whistle, a watch, a law book, a thick skin, and a love for the game of rugby. The whistle should be large and deeply pitched. The watch should have a stop timer. The law book should be read and then enforced more than the traffic laws in Massachusetts, but less than the traffic laws in Germany. A love for the game of rugby gets one through times that one's skin is not sufficiently thick. The first place to try using your whistle and your new understanding of the game from having actually read the law book (which most of us never did while we were playing), is during a club practice. Informal (even without full contact) and formal scrimmages in practice will give you a chance to learn with much less pressure than a game situation. Learn how to watch the game as a referee; find ways to stay close to, but out of the way of, play; get used to blowing a whistle and starting play.

Once you've begun to realize how different the thirty-first position on the field is, it is time for more formal education. Watch at least a couple of senior referees officiate, concentrating on the referee not the players. To where does the referee run in different phases of play? Where does he or she stand? Note that a good referee is rarely standing still! How does he or she talk to the players and how often? How does the referee communicate with whistle and signals? If you can watch a match while talking with another referee on the sidelines, even better. Start attending Society meetings in your area.

Law knowledge comes from continuous reading and rereading of the Laws, from Society meetings, and from discussions with more experienced referees. Although discussions with players about the Laws are encouraged, it is a rare player at the lower levels whose understanding of the laws will contribute positively to your progress.

Fitness is a personal question. If you have played the game, you have some understanding of the pace and intensity involved. If you have not, here are some training suggestions. Rugby games last for eighty minutes and much of this time is spent running. A solid base of distance running, begun 6--8 weeks prior to the first match of your season, should be a minimum of preparation. Also, most referees find that some type of speed work - 50 or 100 yard sprints, possibly a few 220 or longer - provide them with the necessary combination of endurance and the ability to ``turn it on' when needed during a match. Rugby can be a difficult game to judge, but the closer you are to the activity, the better the chances of making the correct call.

You are then still not ready for your first real game, but there's no other choice. Call your local Area Coordinator and say that you're ready for assignments. Your Coordinator will try to pair you up with a senior referee or an evaluator for those first few weeks.

What You Need

There is certain equipment you need to function effectively as a referee, some more essential than others.

Your basic uniform is similar to that of a player: a rugby jersey, rugby shorts, game socks, and boots. Usually referees wear solid jerseys and matching game socks. Make sure your jersey is in good repair, clean, and has high contrast with the teams playing. To accomplish this you will need at least two jerseys, but one from your playing days (without a number) will get by at first. There are running jokes in New England about which evaluators prefer black shorts and which prefer white ones - ignore this. Just don't wear white shorts on muddy days. The Society will purchase one jersey per year for active referees (defined as referees who accepts five Saturday assignments in a calendar year). See Benefits of membership. For boots, you are probably best off with a pair of light-weight molded soccer cleats, though some referees prefer removable studs. These should be kept clean and polished. Boots may be your most expensive piece of equipment, so it pays to take good care of them. Always carry a spare pair of laces.

The essential equipment includes:



  • Usually carry two or three clean, solid colored jerseys.



  • Carry two pairs (at least one dark) of rugby shorts with good pockets.



  • Bring game socks that go with your jerseys or bring black socks to go with everything. Try to make sure they stay up throughout the game!.



  • Keep these clean and in good repair.


Spare boot laces.


  • Take them with you every time you referee, or you will get stuck the day your laces break.



  • The whistle should have a pleasant deep tone. Larger metal whistles are usually better for this reason. The whistle can be on a lanyard wrapped around the hand (but never around the neck) or with finger grips (often used by ice hockey officials). Wash your whistle in hot water after every game to keep the pea from getting stuck. Always carry a spare whistle on your person or with your kit.



  • An inexpensive digital watch, with a stop watch and/or countdown timer, is ideal. Some referees wear one on each wrist in case one stops. If you record the actual time of day that each half starts, a touch judge can rescue you if your watch fails.



  • Large heavy ones that lay flat on the grass are best. Oddly shaped ones from foreign countries are fine.


Score card.

  • A folded index card will serve as a score card. Preprinted ones are available from the Society. The advantage of preprinted ones is that they are designed to record all of the information you may need to record during a match. Contact the Society Secretary for score cards


Writing instrument

  • Old, short pencils that fit in the pockets of rugby shorts work well. Erasers are not needed. Holding a pencil to your score card with a rubber band will save much trouble. A spare is also needed. Some of us keep the spare in our sock; some think this is dangerous. Some referees even use pens.


Yellow and red cards

  • The best matches are the ones in which you dont need to use these. Unfortunately we all have to use them at some point so make sure you have them with you.


Law book

  • The Society provides a new law book to each member every year. Never rely on old ones. Additional law books can be obtained from the Society or from rugby equipment suppliers. Some referees use the App on their iphone or android device.


Touch flags

  • These are easier to see than a waving cap. They are not very expensive if you remember to get them back from the touch judges immediately after the end of the game and never lend them to your colleagues.


Some other equipment, though not absolutely essential, is still quite useful:


Water bottle

  • Though the teams will usually provide you with a drink, never rely on the preparedness of rugby teams


Thermal undershirt

  • This is New England.


Short sleeve jerseys or polo shirts

  • Again, this is New England. Short sleeve shirts are standard for short sided tournaments in the late Spring and Summer. For any day that is very hot the evaluators will be tolerant of this less formal look. Just make sure the shirt has a collar and the sleeves are hemmed. These can be purchased from the Society with an embroidered logo.


Hand pump and pin

  • It is the obligation of the home team to provide a properly inflated ball. Never-the-less, after you have refused two balls that feel like stuffed cabbage, and the home team is beginning to panic, you can be a good samaritan. Always remove the pin before putting the pump back in your kit bag.


Sun screen & plastic bags

  • These hold muddy kit on the days one doesn't need sun screen.


Towel and soap.

  • On rare occasions there will actually be proper changing facilities.


You may have personal quirks. Some referees need liniment or asthma medication. Keep a list in your kit bag of the items you need and go over it before leaving for every match.


A Typical Game Day

As a beginning referee you will be exposed to a variety of matches and situations including handling the lower sides of First division clubs where there will be senior refs to watch you and provide some support and advice, as well as many games where you will be the only referee present. Without intimidating you, it is important to understand that as a referee out on the pitch you are very much in control of, and responsible for, the match that is being played. While the Society and the Coordinators work very hard to make sure that no referee is assigned to a match that he or she cannot handle, the only insurance you have of doing the best you can do is: Be Prepared! Preparation means many things, but perhaps most important for any referee are: Knowledge of the laws, Fitness, and Mental preparation before the game.

When the home team contacts you, remind them that padding on the posts and a restraining rope for the "crowd" is absolutely required. This is also a good time to find out what colors both teams play in - there are two benefits - you will find out if the teams' jerseys have insufficient contrast early enough to have them fix the problem and secondly you will find out if you have a suitable clean shirt. On game day, double check your kit before leaving (see What You Need for some suggestions). Try to arrive at the pitch a minimum of one hour before kick-off (yes, you might arrive before the teams). During the time leading up to kick-off, get yourself loose and warmed up. Use your warmup jog to examine the pitch. Is it correctly marked, especially the goal lines and 22-meter lines? Are there any dangerous spots (holes, manholes, fences, etc.)? Ask the home team to correct any problems that they can, and make sure the visiting team captain is aware of any sub-standard conditions that cannot be corrected. Ensure that the field complies with the padding and crowd restraint requirements. In addition, for high school games, each team must have a responsible adult present. If these safety requirements are not met, do not officiate.

Mental preparation before the game is often overlooked by younger referees, but can make a dramatic difference in your match. Try and spend some time while you stretch and warm-up thinking about your positioning, about areas of your game that may have been not to your liking, and about how you can help the players to keep the game moving. Just as the players are ``psyching' themselves up for the match, so too should you be fine-tuning yourself for the match.

Most referees like to examine equipment while the players are stretching out, rather than on the pitch just before kick-off. Check cleats - don't be shy about requesting replacement boot studs, especially amongst the forwards. Look for rings, watches, ear studs. Note if any players are wearing duplicate numbers. This is also a good time to check the medical kit and talk to whatever medical personnel are in attendance. You may allow designated medical personnel to come onto the pitch while play continues to attend to players injured who are away from the play. USARFU is encouraging this in an effort to improve the flow of matches and to minimize the disruption by minor injuries. You should allow play to continue unless you see it endangering the injured player or you perceive the injury to be serious enough to warrant immediate attention.

Try to have the captains' meeting fifteen minutes before kick-off as the captains will want to give last minute talks to their teams. At the coin toss, the visiting team is usually allowed to call the toss. The winner of the toss may either choose an end of the pitch to defend or the right to kick off. (If the winner of the toss chooses end, the other team kicks off. Please remember to give both captains the contact information for this website to evaluate your performance. After the toss, ask both captains to send out their team's touch judge to meet with you. This identifies them to you and allows you to go over the touch rules with them. If the field is not properly marked, make sure your touch judges are aware of the twenty-two meter lines and the ten-meter lines on kick-offs.

When you take the field, you may want to count the players on each side, especially in college or lower side games. Most referees use some type of stopwatch to time the game, but you should also note the time of the actual commencement of hostilities just in case. (On more than one occasion most of us have accidentally reset the stopwatch midway through a half.) By also noting the number of injury time-outs on your scorecard, you should be able to get close actual time in the event of stopwatch failure. It's probably best to start your watch before you whistle for the opening kick-off.

The following are a few basic pointers on your positioning on the field. In general you should be facing the defense at most times, preferably from behind or alongside a scrum, ruck or whatever as it occurs. In this position you must always try to anticipate the scrum-half's next move and to stay out of running or throwing paths. However when play is goalside of the twenty-two meter line you should be between the ball and the goal or in goal when the ball is close to the goal. Nothing is more difficult or embarrassing to a referee than to have a try scored and not be close enough to see whether or not it's a try. (By the way, if you don't see it touched down, it's not a try.

It is important for the referee to establish control of the match early on. This does not mean blow up ten penalties in the first five minutes, but it does mean that you must establish your parameters for the game early. Of particular importance early on are calling any ``flashpoints' tightly. If one team or player feels that their opponent is ``getting away with' something, the chances for problems are greatly increased. Calling the penalty, or in the marginal case the few words spoken to the offender within hearing of the offended, will often cool the situation. Also, letting the marginal infraction go early on, in hopes of ``keeping the game flowing' may serve to encourage the offender to keep pushing your limits, and often results in the offended team feeling the need to correct the situation themselves - the worst result. Talking to the players at stoppages, whether to get the proper spacing at a lineout, to warn them about an extra push you saw away from the play, to remind them to stay onside at the ruck, or to calm down some excessively robust front-row action, is usually productive. It keeps them aware that you are there and are watching, it lets them know what you are looking at, and it sets you up for a penalty call if the warned player doesn't toe the line. If the warning produces the desired correction in behavior without the penalty, so much the better.

Injury time is played at the end of each half. The halftime should be 3 to 5 minutes - use your judgement. On a blazing hot day the players need more, when it's cold or rainy they'll be lining up to restart in about 2 minutes. As you get to the end of the match be particularly alert. A tight game raises the chances of someone breaking the law to get the win. A blowout raises the chances that one of the losers may be looking to settle a grudge or prove a point. Also, remember that just because the ball is out-of-play (in touch), your job's not on hold. Get to the lineout early (first!) and keep the players in your vision and yourself in their vision to calm any potential blowups. Each half ends at the first stoppage of play after 40 minutes have elapsed (unless the stoppage is due to a fair catch, free kick or penalty kick in which case continue until the next stoppage). If stoppage is due to a try, you must allow the kick to be taken. After the game you should proceed through the teams' handshake lines and remain accessible to both teams to answer questions on points of law or your calls. The encouragement to remain does not require you to put up with uncivil behavior from either team, and such behavior should be reported. Try to spend at least some time at the post match social function; players often want to discuss the game (but consider it a good sign if they don't.


Fill out your evaluation of the home team's preparation and comportment - remember that at the end of the season the club who treats the referees the best and adequately prepares the field for each game gets the Hayes Award from the Society and $250. And finally, remember that your goal should be to help the players have the best game of rugby they can produce on that particular day. Be consistent in your calls throughout, communicate to the players (especially if there appears to be confusion over your calls), ignore the sideline advice, and enjoy the game.​

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